Keeping the Flame Alive

A filmmaker takes us inside her ancient faith, where a fierce struggle rages between tradition and the forces of change.

You describe your new documentary, “Zoroastrians Today,”as an account of Zoroastrianism’s “struggle for survival.” But the film shows that Zoroastrians are responsible for their faith’s dwindling numbers. Can you explain this conundrum?
You’re absolutely on target when you say that Zoroastrians are responsible for the dwindling numbers. But, it’s a certain group of Zoroastrians; there are very liberal Zoroastrians such as myself, who believe that there’s nothing in the theology that says that people cannot intermarry or cannot convert into the faith. But then there’s a die-hard group of Orthodox Zoroastrians that believes that you have to be born into the faith and people cannot convert to Zoroastrianism. That’s the huge debate and the conflict within the community, and that’s what’s causing the problem of dwindling numbers.
 
Has the view that you could only be a Zoroastrian by birth always been a tenet of the religion?
As one of the people in the documentary said, you know, God didn’t one day throw down a million Zoroastrians in the world and said, here, we have a new faith. Logically, we have to believe that the first Zoroastrian was converted by the prophet Zarathushtra, so definitely, there was conversion. We know Zoroastrianism www.beliefnet.com/index/index_10035.html spread in ancient Iran about 3000 B.C.E. Predating Zoroastrianism, there was really no sort of organized monotheistic religion.
Once the Muslim faith spread in the Middle East, thousands of years later in the 7th century, C.E., the Zoroastrians were persecuted, and a large number left Iran and came to India by boat and these folks were called Parsis, or the people from Persia. To this day, Parsis are very conservative and closed-minded, because of their history of persecution. Because of what happened in Persia and because of the fact that they were persecuted, they now have closed themselves off from change.
I think what’s happening to the community now is a reaction to history. But we’re at a crucial point, where if we do not look to see what’s going on within our community, we could die out 50 years from now. So, we need to question this. We need to say, hey, these beliefs are not theologically based. We’re no longer in India. We’re in a second diaspora all over the world, and we need to critically look at the issues and figure out what we’re going to do.
 
There’s a fundamentalist wing as well as a more progressive wing?
I think they’re perfect terms. That’s exactly what it is: a certain fundamentalist group that, unfortunately, are very bigoted, narrow-minded, and closed in their vision of Zoroastrianism.
And there’s another group which is very liberal and open. And there are raging debates between the two groups.
 
Is the American Zoroastrian community the place where more progressive views have developed?
It’s not really black and white, but I think it’s safe to say that Zoroastrians in North America, Europe, Australia, the folks who have moved away from India, are definitely more progressive.
 
Having said that, I’ve met some very rabid and angry priests in this country who do not have a conversation with someone who is married out of the faith. So, in general terms, I would say, yes. I would say the Orthodox fundamentalist folks are India, and other folks who have moved out to the West tend to be more liberal and progressive.
 
Can you explain why Orthodox Zoroastrians oppose conversion and believe that you can only be a Zoroastrian through blood?
I can’t, because, to me, there’s nothing logical about their argument. I think it’s a very emotional argument. In our religious texts, the Gathas, there’s no talk about not allowing people to enter [through conversion]. They’re just beautiful poems, very much like Rumi’s poems, very sublime, very—just wonderful, beautiful information about being a Zoroastrian, about using your mind, about making the best choices–those kind of things.
 
After Zarathushtra passed on and several centuries later, new texts were written, not by Zarathusthra, but by priests in this new era where there was Judaism ,Christianity, Islam. How do you formulate a niche, how do you protect yourself from others? So, these texts were written, the text called “Vendidad,” which is very different from what Zarathushtra had to say and are not his direct words.
 
In the Vendidad, there are other sorts of restrictions, lots of rules--for example, menstruating women are evil. You shouldn’t cut your hair and nails after dark. To me, as a Zoroastrian,they are a lot of mumbo-jumbo that I won’t accept, because these aren’t texts that came from our prophet, this is stuff that is man-made, manufactured, and patriarchal.
 
So we have people like me who will only look at the Gathas and will only draw inspiration from those texts. And then, there are others, like the folks in India, who will look at these later texts. People can justify their actions or their bigotry if they chose to, and that’s what’s happening now.
 
Your film depicts the anguish of people who have faced resistance to bringing their non-Zoroastrian spouses into the faith. Does the priesthood have any binding authority over Zoroastrians regarding intermarriage?
We don’t have a Parsi pope or a figurehead or someone who makes all the decisions for us, and I personally think that that’s terrific. Zoroastrianism is all about the individual and about using your mind and making the right choices because we believe that you intuitively know when you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing.
 
There is no hierarchy. There are priests in North America. There are priests in India. There are priests in Iran. Not all, but most, of the priests in India tend to be conservative and would never perform a ceremony that would allow a non-Zoroastrian to become a Zoroastrian. Whereas, there are priests in North America who will do that.
 
There’s a body in North America called NAMC, the North American Mobeds Council and (“Mobed” is the word for priest.). It’s a very democratically run group. And if through the electoral process a priest is picked who happens to be very progressive and things are fine for the community for the next four years; but if, unfortunately, someone more conservative is picked, then, it’s up to the individual to go seek out priests who are progressive and will perform these ceremonies.
 
How many Zoroastrians today will wind up marrying out of the faith? 
If we just look at North America, I would say there are about 20,000 Zoroastrians all tolled, and I would say half the young Zoroastrians in North America marry Zoroastrians and the other half do not.
 
And interestingly enough in India, too, that’s happening. A lot of young Indian Zoroastrians are marrying Hindus and Christians--whoever they fall in love with now. So, also, in India, the debate is becoming more interesting because the younger generation is questioning what their, parents and grandparents instilled and forced them to believe.
 
Films like mine help [Indian Zoroastrians] a little bit, because in India where it is so insular and they’ve just grown up among Zoroastrians, it’s nice to get a fresh perspective from a Zoroastrian, who has had more exposure to the larger world.
 
This is your second film about Zoroastrianism. What did you hope to accomplish with it? 
The first film that I did was a historical journey of 34 Zoroastrians traveling within Iran, finding out about the roots of their religion. And I think coming out of that film, I realized that there was really a need for a more basic film: Who are the Zoroastrians? What do they believe in? What’s going on in their community? Why should we care about them? Just basically Zoroastrianism 101.
 
And so, that was the motivating fact. I was joking with friends and family and I said, you know what? Fifty years from now if we all die out, at least there’ll be a film for posterity. People will know that we existed.
 
Was the film aimed at sparking debate among Zoroastrians on the contentious topics that you raise? Or was the purpose to educate non-Zoroastrians?
Honestly, I went into this film hoping for the wider audience. I wanted to reach out to Americans, our friends and neighbors. I wanted people who didn’t know anything about the faith to learn a little bit about it.
 
But, I know it’s a given that there is that Zoroastrian audience, you know, I’m sure family, friends and the 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world will be thrilled once I release it to them just because nothing is ever said or written about our community. But, that wasn’t my primary goal.
 
Have you had any concerns about airing Zoroastrians’ dirty linen in public?
The thought definitely crossed my mind. But, I’m a huge believer in honesty, and I also think that to make a film compelling, there has to be conflict. It’s what makes for change and change is what makes the world progress.
 
The conflict within our community is huge right now, because if this conflict doesn’t end, there may not be any Zoroastrians 75 years down the road. So, to do a film about Zoroastrianism and not talk about the fact that the numbers are dwindling and there’s a sense of excluding people I think would be a disservice. So, if it means that people know this conflict within our communities–so be it. There’s conflict in all communities. And I just feel I took a brave step and was honest enough to tell it like it is. We’re not being disrespectful toward anyone. I tried to make sure that the tone of the film was not disrespectful toward either side.
 
Are you a practicing Zoroastrian?
I'm a practicing Zoroastrian. And I was born a Zoroastrian. Both my parents and my grandparents are Zoroastrians. However, having said that, I consider myself more of a spiritual person than a religious person, so I don’t know all the Zoroastrian prayers.
 
I try to stay away from a lot of the ritual because when I look at the Gathas, which were the actual texts of Zoroastrianism, it was so different then. Women, for example, were allowed to be priests in that time. We didn't worship fire, but fire is a very important symbol in Zoroastrianism. So, apparently, fires in Zarathushtra's times were external fires. Outside, there would be a gathering, and a man could lead the congregation or a woman could lead ,and it was a lot more egalitarian. And I think over the centuries, we have temples and we have a whole hierarchy and only men can be priests.
 
Is there any move for women to enter the priesthood?
There definitely is a push. And what ended up happening is again, the Zoroastrian priests in North America have started a program called the Para-Mobed program, which is the para-priest program. And women are certainly allowed to go through this program and learn the basic prayers and how to perform a marriage ceremony and a Navjote ceremony, which is a child’s initiation ceremony. It's great to see that. I love to see a positive change.
 
Do you find that people are surprised when you tell them you're Zoroastrian?
I don't talk about it too much. Recently, I find I have been just because of the film. I was at a party recently and there was a young, hip group of filmmakers and I talked about my film. And the person next to me knew about Zoroastrians and was fascinated. It was like, “Oh, my God, you're a Zoroastrian and they actually exist and can I actually touch you to make sure you're here” kind of thing. It was funny and it was interesting. But, that is our reality.
 
We're 200,000 in the world. We're dying out. A lot of our scholars are fantastic people, but so into their scholarly pursuits that there's no PR or no sort of disseminating this knowledge. And at the end of the day, when I try to explain my faith--we are Zoroastrians, but we're really all the same. I mean, if you look at Zoroastrianism, at Judaism, at Christianity and, you look at the Seven Amesha Spentas, they became the Seven Archangels, and you look at dualism and that became heaven and hell later. So, we're all really connected.
 
Zarathushtra said that he didn't consider himself the last and only prophet. He acknowledged that there would be others--you know, that there would be a Moses and a Jesus and a Buddha and a Muhammad and that there would be other wise men who would repeat this story of monotheism and of being a good human being ultimately, which is what it's all about.
 
Are there aspects of contemporary Zoroastrian practice from which you feel alienated?
Well, a little bit. When I visit India, for example, I love going to fire temples just because they're beautiful ancient structures that have been around for centuries and there's a big, beautiful silver urn and this--you know, which is four feet high and there's a fire kept burning there, you know, 24/7 and there's--the best wood is used. It's only sandalwood. It's very calm and peaceful and it's a great place to be just to maybe do some meditating or some thinking. But, it also bothers me when when I see these signs that say “For Zoroastrians only.” It seems to me like nothing that has to do with God or religion or spirituality should be exclusive.
 
Do these signs appear on all the fire temples in India?
I would say that, yes, 99 percent of the fire temples in India have these signs outside them, unfortunately.
 
Do the exclusionary signs exist in the United States?
No, they do not because, first of all, in the United States, we really don't have these temples, per se. In New York City there's a group called ZAGNY, Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York http://www.zagny.org/. And we have a temple in Pomona in upstate New York. And that temple is actually an old Jewish synagogue that we bought. But, most of the space is used for classes. Once a month, young Zoroastrian families will bring their kids and there'll be some kind of religious instruction. The temples here are really not temples, per se. They're little prayer halls.
 
You talk about Zoroastrianism as the world's first monotheistic religion and many of the people you profile in your film speak of it in that way, as well. Could you explain the basics of Zoroastrian beliefs?
Certainly. It's a very liberating religion, I think, because there's such a stress on the individual, right. Each individual has a spark of spirituality or God in him or herself. And basically, the beliefs are good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.
 
As a Zoroastrian, you use your mind, the Vahu-Manah or the good mind, to make the right choices in your life. And by doing this and by making the right choices, you create heaven for yourself on earth. So, there's no fire and brimstone and you're not going to suffer and there are no Ten Commandments. It's not a very prescriptive religion at all. It's very much upon the individual to use their mind, which Zarathushtra described as the greatest of all creations, the good mind.
 
Use your mind, make the right choices, and by doing that and by good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, you will lead a beautiful life and you will have heaven on earth. So, that's Zoroastrianism in very simplistic terms.
 
In terms of our afterlife beliefs, there is this sense of after you die, it takes four days for the soul to leave the body and in those four days, no one else is judging you. You yourself will judge your soul and say, okay, do I cross over or do I not kind of thing. And then, if you do cross over, your soul reaches a place of eternal happiness.
 
Monotheism refers to one God—in your religion, Ahura Mazda. Is Ahura Mazda a personal god?
I think that varies upon how enlightened an individual is and how much theological study they've done. As kids, we're taught some prayers - the Ashem Vohu, the Yatha Ahu Vairyo. Then, we're taught our Navjote prayers. And there really isn't theological discussion going on about how you perceive God. It's more like, “These are the prayers. You need to learn them.” In terms of Ahura Mazda himself, Ahura Mazda means the wise being.
 
So again, Zarathushtra, stresses the whole concept of the Seven Archangels really came from the Seven Amesha Spentas, the Seven Creations that Zarathushtra--or Ahura Mazda came up with these Seven Creations and Zarathushtra recognized them. There's earth, water, fire, air, and then, of course, human beings, represented by the Vahu-Manah or the good mind.
 
And basically, when you think of Ahura Mazda, Zarathushtra refers to him as the wise being or sort of the enlightened super-intellect. So, the relationship is that of Zarathushtra being a prophet and tapping into the universal consciousness.
 
And how about the evil force in Zoroastrianism?
Within Zoroastrian theology, there's never agreement, which is an interesting thing about Zoroastrians. But, some people believe that Angra Mainyu is evil and Spenta Mainyu is good. So, there's the evil mentality and the good mentality. And these mentalities exist out there in the world. And as a Zoroastrian, it is your duty to use your good mind, the Vahu-Manah, tap into the super-intellect or super-consciousness and pick good over evil. And you intuitively know what is good and what is evil.
 
If you trip someone or if you're doing something at work just to get ahead, you know that this is a mean spirit and that you're doing something wrong. There's a dualistic mentality. But, what Zoroastrian scholars don't agree on is that some perceive Ahura Mazda as ultimately in charge. Some say that there are the good forces, and the evil forces, but God is ultimately in charge, while other Zoroastrians look at it more as a relationship of equals, so that there's Ahura Mazda, which represents everything good and then, there's Anra Mainyu, which represents everything evil. I think what's more important is to recognize that there's good out there and there's evil out there and as a good, practicing Zoroastrian, you need to tap into good.
 
Why have Iran’s Muslims targeted Zoroastrians for persecution?
In this fundamentalist culture that we see in Iran, anyone who is non-Muslim is treated differently than Muslims. And I have to say that Zoroastrians are treated better than other minorities, like the Baha’is, because Zoroastrians predated Islam.
 
If you look at the Muslim faith if you read the Qur’an, it’s a beautiful religion. It’s a very egalitarian religion. But, I think what happens is people practice it in such a way that it can somehow, turned into a fundamentalist thing, which is, unfortunately, what's happening.
 
The first time I went to Iran was in 2000 to work on my first film and I wanted to hire a Zoroastrian camera-person, because I said it would be nice to give a local Zoroastrian person a chance. And when I tried to do this, I was told, no Zoroastrians in Iran are camera-people. They're just farmers. They're not allowed to be doctors or camera-people or lawyers--that's reserved for Muslims. And this was a huge revelation for me, coming from India, where the Zoroastrians are just the crème de la crème and are treated so well and are respected, to come to Iran and to be told that, oh, you're not going to find a Zoroastrian camera-person was a bit of an eye opener.
 
The other incident that happened in Iran happened when we were drinking water out of a tap. We were each wearing a little pendant around our neck, sort of like a Catholic would maybe wear a cross or a Jew would wear a Star of David. Our symbol is the Fravashi; it's a guardian angel. Anyone who knows anything about Zoroastrianism recognizes it. So, we were drinking water out of a tap and some of the local villagers noticed that we had these necklaces on and so concluded that we were Zoroastrian and said, “Hey, you're not allowed to drink water out of that tap, that's just for Muslims. Zoroastrians use this other tap.”
 
All of us [on the filmmaking team] were college-educated and savvy and aware of our rights, and this was an eye opener: Who knew that our communities would be like this in Iran? So, that was the motivating factor. If Zoroastrians themselves don't know how Zoroastrians are treated in Iran, definitely the rest of the world doesn't know.
 
Have most of the Zoroastrians in the United States come from India?
There's definitely a mix. A large number of Iranians who came directly to North America, did so after the revolution in Iran, in the '70s when the Shah was deposed. There's a very large congregation of them in the West Coast, in the Los Angeles area.
 
There are also the Parsis, who came from India over the generations for study, for better opportunities economically and so forth.
 
Watching your film, I saw parallets with Jewish experience in regard to intermarriage, in the interplay between assimilationism and the desire to go back to one's religious and ethnic roots and also, in the echoes of persecution. Do Zoroastrians feel any kinship or recognize that parallelism to the Jewish experience?
Absolutely. And besides, both the groups sharing a history of persecution and the fact that they're both very small groups. Zoroastrians in India are called the “Jews of India” in a very complimentary way. It’s alluding to the fact that it's a very small, close-knit community, education is hugely important. Something like 99.9 percent of Zoroastrian women in India are educated. Zoroastrians in India make up less than 1 percent of the population. But, at one point, the head of the army, navy, and air force were all Zoroastrians.
 
When the British ruled India, they wanted a community to assist them that wasn't numerically going to challenge them, and the Hindus and Muslims were too numerous. So they chose the Zoroastrians, this tiny little group and really educated them and made them the civil servants and gave them all the opportunities and, Zoroastrians, being the nomads that we are, grabbed this opportunity and really, really did well in India.
 
Jewish relief agencies gave aid to Zoroastrians in Iran who were being persecuted. How did that came about?
After I came back from Iran where I learned that this persecution is happening, I started asking questions and doing some research. Because I'm a Parsi--my family is from India--I didn't know too many Zoroastrians who left Iran because of the persecution and came here. I started reaching out to people and doing some research and, while talking to a professor in California, he mentioned HIAS, Hebrew Immigration Aid Society and said that they're doing some really good work not just for Zoroastrians, but other minorities in Iran who are not being treated correctly. I reached out to HIAS, told them what I was doing. They do terrific work.
 
I questioned them about why is it that Zoroastrian groups aren't doing similar work. And I found out that apparently, we are. Apparently, there is being money that's being funneled by Zoroastrian groups to--I'm not sure whether it's HIAS or other agencies, but I think the whole idea is to do it quietly and without a lot of visibility, just to protect the, Zoroastrians who want to leave Iran and not have the government crack down on them.
 
What were they able to do for the Zoroastrians in Iran?
About 200 individuals have been helped. If you're not allowed access to higher education or cannot practice your religion--if your basic human rights are being denied--you can apply to HIAS and you're brought to Vienna.
 
So, they help them immigrate?
Yes, they help them immigrate, through Vienna. To come to the States, the individual needs a sponsor. And then, once they come here, they go through refugee resettlement groups where they get training and they get vocational training and jobs and make their new home in America.
 
Do you have a favorite prayer?
Yes, I do.
 
Could you recite it for us and explain to us what it's about?
It's the prayer called the Ashem Vohu and it's fairly short:
Ashem vohu. Vahishtem asti. Ushta asti. Ushta ahmai hyat ashai vahishtai ashem. And what that means is choose right in the world and make the right decisions, not because you're going to be rewarded, but make the right decision simply because that's the right thing to do and that will--that's what will lead to ultimate happiness for you and sort of renovation of the world at large.
 
When do Zoroastrians recite this prayer?
It depends how devout you are. There are some Zoroastrians who pray five times a day. And that again is sort of interesting, because when you look at Islam right now, they pray the same five times a day. It originated in Zoroastrianism; Zoroastrians used to divide the day into five parts. So, there are Zoroastrians who still pray five times a day and who recite the Ashem Vohu or the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and different prayers, depending on what time of the day it was. And then, there are, Zoroastrians like me who just have a few favorite prayers.
 
This little prayer is kind of my stress relief. If I'm just really upset or in a situation where I'm not doing too well or there's too much going on, I'll just step back and say this quietly to myself. It kind of grounds me and reminds me as to what I need to do to resolve the situation and it's very applicable in a lot of ways.
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